Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was judged pretty harshly by critics and audiences alike when it was released on June 9th, 1989. This was the follow-up to The Voyage Home, one of the most successful Star Trek movies in franchise history, it opened two weeks before Batman took over the box office, and even though The Final Frontier concludes on a meeting with “God,” the finale never quite feels as epic as earlier installments.
But, the passage of time is a funny thing. And Star Trek IV, which was such a favorite of mine back in the day, now feels dated. In contrast, I’ve come to appreciate The Final Frontier more and more with every viewing. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned just how magical and wonderfully flawed moviemaking really is. Even though Star Trek V may not live up to its predecessors, namely Wrath of Khan, it does give us some great character moments, and sticks to its roots by tackling sociopolitical topics, in this case: false prophets, trauma, and of course… “what does God need with a starship?”
With Leonard Nimoy having directed both Star Trek III and IV, William Shatner exercised his option to jump into the director’s chair for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The story came from an idea that Shatner pitched, where the crew of the Enterprise meets God. At a recent Trek event I attended in Ticonderoga, Shatner talked about his experience working on the film, saying it was a lesson on why you shouldn’t compromise.
What started out as a high-level, but clear vision from Shatner got muddled before and during production. After meeting with producers, the encounter with “God” was turned into meeting an evil entity that posed as God. Shatner had talented writers in mind, including Eric Van Lustbader and Nicholas Meyer, but there were scheduling and budgetary issues with hiring the writers Shatner was interested in, and then there was a writers’ strike. Even when production started, budget issues prevented the end from being as grand as originally planned, with rock monsters never making it into the final cut. This is a definite case of too many cooks in the kitchen, but not enough people give Shatner, writer David Loughery, and the cast credit for delivering some elements that REALLY work well here.
Bookending the film with the crew’s shoreleave gives us a rare glimpse of the crew, specifically Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, taking it easy and enjoying each other’s time. The three of them share an unbreakable bond, and we the audience have always known this, but there’s something very lovable about seeing them recognize the fact that they are each other’s family. Star Trek V has some of the best personal interactions we see between McCoy, Kirk, and Spock period.
I’m just going to get it out of my system right now: it’s a crime that David Warner is so underused in this movie, but thankfully they do lean in on the charismatic performance from Laurence Luckinbill. His performance as Sybok helps carry the film, and the character remains one of the franchise’s best antagonists.
The Final Frontier may have veered away from the crew meeting the real “God,” but it deals with the more interesting topic of a fake prophet. How many times do we see politicians and televangelists take people’s pain or fear and turn it into their gain? In this case, what makes Sybok so interesting is that he’s not intentionally misleading anyone. He truly believes that he’s been given a vision by God (another area that’s a little murky in the movie, but he’s likely a pawn of “God.”)
When Sybok finds out that his “God” has misled him, Sybok fights “God” to save Spock, Kirk, and McCoy, sacrificing himself in the process. Sybok’s arc plays out in a very un-Hollywood way, allowing him to have this moment to prove that he really did have the best intentions (however misguided), and when he finds out he was wrong, he does everything in his power to stop it. The more black and white Hollywood approach can be seen in Star Trek Beyond (another movie that doesn’t get as much love as it should!), with Krall (played by Idris Elba), whose character should have turned good in the end, but is instead given a more clearly villainous role.
Another topic that Star Trek V leans on is the processing of pain and how trauma affects people’s lives. Sybok “brainwashes” most of the crew into following his orders by having them relive their most painful moments as a way to face their fear. It’s a little murky as to the how / why Sybok’s powers actually work, and it seems like there’s more of this on the cutting room floor, but it’s one of those topics that’s perfect for Star Trek. Does the pain you have over previous trauma make you the person you are today? If you could get it removed, would you? And how does that change who you are? We’ve seen this kind of topic handled by more delicate hands in recent movies like Midsommar, but you can see where this movie wants to dive in deeper (especially when there are topics like Kirk’s feelings toward Spock and the death of his son, David) and just can’t or doesn’t.
By 1989 and with five movies under their belt, the Star Trek cast was getting older and The Final Frontier could have very well been the last Star Trek movie in the original film series. And, although I'm very glad we got Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country as a proper send-off for the entire main cast, I would have been completely happy with the final scene of The Final Frontier being the last one of the series: three friends both off-screen and on, singing “Row Row Row Your Boat” around the campfire. It’s one of the least sci-fi scenes in the entire franchise, but it’s one of my favorite moments in this movie, and it echoes what makes Star Trek special. In the end, Star Trek isn’t about the gadgets and technology, it’s about the human condition, it’s about friendship, and it’s about trying to make the world (and the universe) a better place.
Check here throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the Class of 1989!